Establishing how intergroup bias influences the formation and evolution of stereotypes.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Psychology


The proposed research will establish how the membership and status of social groups influences how cultural stereotypes form and change. Cultural stereotypes are template-like depictions of social categories whereby group membership is associated with the possession of certain attributes (e.g., scientists are geeky, Scottish people are miserly, men like the colour blue). Stereotypes exert substantial influence on us as individuals and on our society: when people endorse stereotypes it leads to prejudice and discrimination towards members of minority groups; even when people refute stereotypes the mere knowledge of their content can lead to unconscious bias in thoughts and behaviour. Yet, in the face of an infinitely complex social environment stereotypes play a vital social cognitive role by efficiently organising and structuring social information. Given their ubiquity and influence it is perhaps surprising that relatively little is known about how cultural stereotypes form and change.

We propose that stereotypes form and change via a process of cumulative cultural evolution. Because people possess shared biases that influence how information is remembered and communicated, when knowledge is repeatedly passed from person to person these biases accumulate causing the content of information to change in predictable ways. Research has shown that when information is passed down chains of individuals - a bit like the children's game often called 'Chinese whispers' or 'telephone' - it becomes increasingly simplified and structured. For example, we recently demonstrated that as novel social information passes from person to person it develops a stereotype-like structure that was not previously present. Thus, through the process of cumulative cultural evolution, even very small amounts of bias at the level of individual people can translate into much bigger societal biases like cultural stereotypes.

The proposed research will establish whether individual biases associated with a person's membership of social groups influences the formation and evolution of cultural stereotypes. Whether we perceive others as belonging to the same social group as ourselves (the in-group) or a different social group (the out-group) has profound implications for our thoughts and behaviours. Group membership tends to lead to intergroup bias, with people more likely to favour in-group members and discriminate against out-group members. The proposed research will determine whether repeatedly communicating social information about in-group and out-group members results in the formation of relatively positive in-group stereotypes and negative out-group stereotypes. In addition, the proposed research will also establish whether it is possible to predict how the content of stereotypes will evolve based on the perceived status of different out-groups (e.g., whether they are perceived to be high status or low status).

The proposed research will therefore help establish whether cumulative cultural evolution leads to the unintentional but inevitable formation of stereotypes, whose content is largely determined by the shared biases of perceivers rather than the actual properties of the groups themselves.

Planned Impact

Academic Impact

The proposed research will provide novel theoretical insight to a question of relevance to people from around the world - how do cultural stereotypes form and evolve? The research will employ an innovative cross-disciplinary approach, combining theory from social and cognitive psychology with theory and methods from evolutionary linguistics. Examining how stereotypes form and change as information is socially transmitted will not only help shed light on a question of central importance to social psychologists, it will also add to the knowledge base of the emerging multi-disciplinary area of cultural evolution. Because the investigators working on the proposed project will be drawn from diverse research backgrounds (i.e., social psychology, cognitive psychology, linguistics), the postdoctoral researcher working on the project will have a unique opportunity to develop a broad range of skills and knowledge that they might not necessarily be afforded on a within discipline project.

Societal impact

The most obvious, although not singular, negative aspect of stereotypes is their association with prejudice. Believing stereotypes to be true representations of social categories leads to prejudiced attitudes and behaviour. Prejudice leads to intergroup bias, which can result in individual, institutional or societal discrimination against members of particular social groups. Discrimination can manifest itself in many different forms, from direct and unconscious bias in work-based recruitment policies and selection decisions, to social conflict and even ethnic cleansing. What the multifarious forms of prejudice and discrimination have in common is their reliance on inaccurate stereotypic assumptions.

There is currently a sizeable knowledge gap between current scientific understanding of stereotypes and the perceptions of the general public and policy-makers. We will engage directly with the general public, with a diverse range of media and with the third sector to explain what stereotypes are, their positive and negative consequences, and the science that is uncovering their function, thereby providing impact that is of societal and personal relevance. We will also develop training on the influence of unconscious social bias in higher education; this training will initially be delivered to staff at the University of Aberdeen, before being offered to staff at the University of Abertay and the University of Edinburgh. If successful the training would then be made available to other higher education institutions throughout the UK.


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Martin D (2017) How societal stereotypes might form and evolve via cumulative cultural evolution in Social and Personality Psychology Compass